To everyone’s surprise, I had 200 former members contact me and to my particular surprise.
To everyone’s surprise, I had 200 former members contact me and to my particular surprise, I discovered I was not alone in my anxiety and depression.
Jill Aebi-Mytton says: Women in the brethren are brought up to be “silent in the assembly” and I think I took that literally and was silent and not just in the assembly but in all sorts of different places as well. Silent at school, silent when out and about – sometimes I would go for long silent lonely walks. I had conversations with myself and asked existential questions that of course I could not answer but did not dare to voice them. It took me many years to find my voice.
How many years have you been free?
I am in a slightly unusual situation in that I did not choose to leave the Exclusive Brethren so freedom is not something I have thought about experiencing. My parents decided to leave in 1960 just after my 16th birthday but we continued in a kind of brethren meeting in someone’s house. A large number of people left at the same time and so we just kept together. I did not feel free at all - around this time I felt constrained mostly by my mother perhaps because she was still very much a brethren woman and also a woman of her time, just post Victorian. 30 years passed before I was able to really explore the way I was brought up. Freedom therefore kind of crept up on me rather than it being a sudden event. It is now 60 years – a long time. I feel a kind of freedom now though some of my life is still tainted by my past.
What is the one thing in life you’re so happy you did? (other than escaping)
I was of course still at school when my parents chose to leave, I wanted to do what the other girls were doing, I wanted to go to university, I longed to be normal, I think. This was not something that my parents encouraged. And if my parents did not encourage something, I somehow assumed that the brethren would not either. Somehow by a process of osmosis almost, I had learnt that going to university was not for me. At the end of my final year at school, I was aware that I wanted to do something but was limited by the fact that I only managed to achieve two A-Levels. The school, as well as my parents, seem to have decided I was not bright enough to really study and gain the necessary qualifications for university – and when I say ‘my parents’ I of course also mean the brethren. For me, family and brethren were enmeshed.
However, my parents were pleased enough when I started studying occupational therapy at the London College. That was probably the most important step for me. Not only did I discover that I did have a brain (as the psychology tutor excitedly told me one-day “you are the most intelligent student we have ever had”), I also gained a qualification. Unfortunately, I did not gain my full freedom while I was there. My mother expected me to go home every weekend and tried to find me a local meeting that I could attend in London even though by now my parents were attending a local Evangelical church. My mother seems very afraid of losing me. All the same, it was the best thing I did as it was the first step to freedom – whatever that is. So therefore I am happy I did it! It gave me some sense of the world outside of the suffocating brethren environment that somehow my parents still seemed to adhere to.
Yes, I am happy I discovered I was intelligent – at the same time a tad annoyed that no one had noticed until I left school.
What would you tell your younger self?
I would tell myself as a child, that there is such a thing as unconditional love. Whilst the brethren gave the message that love and acceptance were conditional, conditional on me believing what they preached, there is another world where love and acceptance are freely given. I would tell myself not to be afraid, and to listen to the quiet voice within that tried hard to be heard but wasn’t heard until much later in life. I would tell my child that there are wonderful things out there, wonderful people and you do not have to be afraid of hell, or of not being saved to be happy and accepted. I would tell her too that there is wonder in the world – every now and then I recall as a child of being aware of wonder but then shutting it off as being ‘not for me’.
What is the biggest lesson(s) you’ve learnt since starting your new life?
The first important lesson I learned was that I was not alone in my struggles. The other students on the MSc encouraged me to research the mental health of other former members. To everyone’s surprise, I had 200 former members contact me and to my particular surprise, I discovered I was not alone in my anxiety and depression. Others were experiencing it too along with symptomatology of PTSD.
Other key lessons I’ve learnt during my life outside the brethren are ones I have learnt since then. I have learned that a definitive truth does not really exist. Yes of course in science and other subjects there are definitive truths to talk about, such as genes and elements, but in life, it is all about perspective.
What is most important for your mental health?
Strangely in spite of so much struggle to find myself in Switzerland, I now return there usually twice a year to spend time up in the mountains. Being in the fresh open air is good. Being with family too – I feel safest when with family and close friends. Positive feedback is key to good mental health and in a way, Facebook has helped with that. Hearing people thank me for helping them and for being part of a movement (not an organised team as the brethren want to believe) that continues to expose cultic groups, the brethren in particular, for what they really are.
What should be required reading for every woman?
Carl Rogers to get an understanding of human relationships and of the three aspects of unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence.
What in your life gave you courage?
Having two children as a single parent meant I had no choice really. They gave me courage as did the lecturers on the various degrees I completed and more recently my counselling psychology colleagues who allow me to have a PTSD meltdown whilst holding my hand and then continuing as before. A great gift.
What ignites your sense of injustice?
Often I hear of man’s inhumanity to man -whether it is because of the Exclusive Brethren’s treatment of former members, or events in Myanmar and elsewhere.
What’s the greatest gift we can give ourselves?
Self-love and self-acceptance – the latter does not mean we accept ourselves and do not change but it means accepting that I am a snappy cow sometimes but I do not need to condemn myself for that but rather think about working towards changing it. Unless we can accept who we are and love ourselves anyway, we will not change and we will not able to help others.
Thank you Jill Aebi-Mytton for giving such comprehensive answers - I am only sorry that I cannot include them all here.